Two years ago this month, the New York City Council passed Int. No. 24, amending the city’s human rights law to add gender identity and expression, thereby extending protection from discrimination to transsexual, transgendered, and gender-variant people throughout the five boroughs.
I still remember vividly the euphoria we felt as we sat in the gallery of the City Council chambers on April 24 as the Council passed the bill by an overwhelming margin of 45-5.
After Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg signed the bill into law on April 30, the New York City Commission on Human Rights convened a working group––made up of members of its staff as well as transgender activists including me and my co-chair at the New York Association for Gender Rights Advocacy (NYAGRA), Moonhawk River Stone––to draft guidelines for implementing this civil rights statute.
By the time of our most recent meeting––in May 2003––we had reached consensus on broadly conceived yet meticulously detailed guidelines that could well be a model for other cities to emulate. But a year after completion of the draft, the Commission has yet to approve it.
I was reminded of the importance of implementing the law by a disturbing personal incident I suffered on April 19. That morning, I joined John Won, Jih-Fei Cheng, and Alain Dang from Gay Asian & Pacific Islander Men of New York and Riley Snorton from the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation in a meeting with Details magazine about the “Gay or Asian?” feature that caused a storm of public protest due to its insensitivity about race and sexuality. After the meeting, we lunched in the food court on the lower level of the Manhattan Mall on Sixth Avenue and 33rd Street. Before sitting down to lunch, I availed myself of the women’s room, without incident. But after eating, upon emerging from the women’s room a second time, I was stopped by a female security guard demanding to know, “Are you a woman or a man?” Advantage Security, a private firm hired by the mall, has an office only yards from both restrooms, and the security guards were apparently using the big glass window on the security station to engage in surveillance of the restrooms.
Startled by the question, I was alarmed as a pack of security guards––all powerfully built men towering over me––circled me in a physically threatening manner. What I found disturbing was their use of physical intimidation as part of their attempt to interrogate me about my gender identity, their menacing posture suggesting the potential for violence. From the lead security guard’s comments, I strongly suspected that this incident might have been part of a persistent pattern of harassment of gender-variant individuals using the restrooms at the mall.
It is important to recognize that bathrooms are not just an issue for transitioning and post-operative transsexuals; they are an issue for all transgendered and gender-variant people. There are women with butch haircuts who are challenged every time they go into the women’s room, and gender-queer folk who find it difficult to use either restroom without being hassled or harassed.
The only difference between me and any other transgendered person being harassed by this private security outfit was that I was well aware of my rights, having coordinated the campaign for the very transgender rights law that they very well may have violated. Despite the risk to my personal safety, I decided to challenge what appeared to be their discriminatory intent regarding access to a public accommodation. But neither the female security guard nor the head of security, whom I asked to see, seemed aware that this incident may have constituted a violation of city human rights law.
I was struck that the incident at the Manhattan Mall occurred only five days before the second anniversary of the passage of Int. No. 24, reinforcing what I already knew––that the law’s enactment would be a hollow victory for the transgender community unless the Commission began implementing it seriously and enforcing it rigorously.
The working group’s last meeting at the Commission took place nearly a full year ago, last May 12. Commission staff informed us that the Commissioner for Human Rights, Patricia Gatling, had “concerns” about the draft guidelines, but I cannot understand why, a full year after the working group completed them, she still has yet to schedule a meeting with us to discuss those concerns. Since last May, I have made repeated calls to the Commission inquiring about the status of the guidelines without having received any substantive response.
When I joined the working group two years ago, I assumed that the Commission was committed to implementation of the law; but the pattern of delay suggests that the Commission is not serious about implementing the transgender rights law. It may even be possible that Commissioner Gatling is deliberately delaying implementation so as to impede effective enforcement of the statute.
Meanwhile, there may well be countless incidents of discrimination occurring that might have been prevented had these guidelines been issued in a timely manner. As the incident at the Manhattan Mall clearly illustrates, employers, landlords, and other providers of public accommodations are woefully ignorant of the transgender rights law. Many may not even be aware that it is now illegal to discriminate on the basis of gender identity or expression, and I strongly suspect that most have no idea how to modify their own operations––through staff training and other initiatives––in order to comply with the law’s provisions.
It is now time––well past time, in fact––for the Commission to approve and adopt broadly conceived guidelines to implement the transgender rights law and to undertake an aggressive campaign to inform and educate New York City agencies as well as private employers, landlords, and others about the provisions of the statute.
I would encourage all those who support implementation of this legislation to demand action from the Commission. You can phone the Commissioner Gatling at 212 306 5070 or e-mail her via the web at http://nyc.gov/html/mail/html/mailchr.html.
To protest the gender-policing of restrooms and the harassment of transgendered and gender-variant people at the Manhattan Mall, call the management at 212 465 0500.
Transgendered and gender-variant people in this city continue to face pervasive discrimination, and those thrown out of jobs or apartments––or simply restrooms in shopping malls––do not have the luxury of time while waiting for implementation of this non-discrimination statute. Only the most rigorous enforcement of this law will help reduce such discrimination, but responsibility for such enforcement rests with the Commission, as does responsibility for the unconscionable delay in the law’s implementation.
Pauline Park is co-chair of the New York Association for Gender Rights Advocacy (nyagra.tripod.com). In her capacity as coordinator of the work group on gender-based discrimination that included the six City Councilmembers who took the lead on Int. No. 24, Park led the campaign for passage of the measure. She also serves on the board of directors of the Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund (transgenderlegal.org).